Making Waves (continued)
Mary, Martha, or Ally McBeal?: Who and Where is Women's Studies?
"Our work has often been imperfect, our work is
still unfinished -- but yes, we have earned our celebration," declared
Dr. Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of New York University's Graduate School
of Arts and Science, founding editor of the feminist journal Signs,
and author of Where the Meanings Are: Feminism and Cultural
Spaces. "In only three decades, we have more than begun to reconstruct
knowledge and its institutions. We have heard the voices of women of every
circumstance," she said. "Every field of study, from Afrikaner
studies to zoology ... and every aspect of life, from the conception of
a child to a prayer for the dead has been touched."
Rather than be a cheerleader, Stimpson said, "my
task as I understand it is to tell a story -- truncated, to be sure; abbreviated,
to be sure -- but a story about the histories and origins of women's studies,
especially in the United States." To illustrate that narrative, she
added, she had chosen the three figures in the title of her speech --
"Mary, Martha, and Ally McBeal."
In the New Testament, Mary and Martha are sisters who
are visited in their home by Jesus; Martha does all the cooking and housekeeping,
while Mary sits at Jesus's feet and listens. When Martha asks if this
is fair, Stimpson said, "Jesus answers, 'Martha, Martha, you are
fretting and fussing about so many things, but one thing is necessary.
The part that Mary has chosen is best, and it shall not be taken from
Noting that the scene has been interpreted in many ways,
"including an under-appreciation of housework," she proposed
Mary and Martha as "together emblemizing women's studies: We do the
work of daily life, be it in our homes or schools. We bind and weave,
scrub, and improvise, and keep things going, but simultaneously we have
yearned for thought ... We have simultaneously been Marys and Marthas
of every race, creed, and nationality, and I see the story of these later
Marys and Marthas and, later, Ally McBeal as consisting of three waves
-- more accurately, as 3.5 waves."
first wave "was for access to educational institutions and the domain
of reason," said Stimpson. "The first wave gathered strength
in the West in the 19th century and was inseparable from women's push
for access to political institutions as well -- and in many places the
first wave is still the only wave." The second wave, in the middle
of the 20th century ("I am an unabashed second-waver," Stimpson
noted), renewed the struggle for access to institutions, and in part,
"sought to transform the institutions of teaching and learning."
In the 1980s, wave 2.5 began to challenge the second wave intellectually,
with some "brilliant" second-wavers taking part as well. The
third wave, which includes today's students and people in their twenties
and early thirties ("The primary targets of the producers of Ally
McBeal"), is now "picking up speed in turbulent waters,"
she said. "Who will ride this wave most successfully? When and where
will it end? The answer to such questions are unknown."
Noting that "historians have mapped the first wave,"
Stimpson began with the second. "The story of women's studies is
inseparable from the story of women's education in the second wave,"
she said. After subsiding for several decades, in the 1960s the struggle
over women's education "came with renewed vigor even as the information
society was being formed," helped along by the anti-war, civil-rights,
and broader women's-liberation movements.
Second-wave achievements include the elimination of
much overt discrimination, greater awareness of gender issues such as
sexual harassment and the need for child-care, increased consciousness
among "majority" women of racial and other differences among
women, and more women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds entering colleges
and universities. About 2,000 colleges and universities offer women's
studies courses, and there are an estimated 725 organized programs, according
to the National Women's Studies Association. ("In my lifetime, I
have seen the number of programs grow from zero to 725," Stimpson
said wryly.) Between 1975 and 1995, the United Nations sponsored four
international meetings about women that "strengthened the global
perception of the importance of women's studies." In 1998, the National
Council for Research on Women "had 200 international research and
resource centers on its formal listing."
Much of the energy of early women's studies scholarship
went into documenting "the invidious nature of sexual differences
-- their often violent hierarchies, their often disabling discrimination."
In the 1970s, a counter-movement developed. "People in women's studies
began to distrust the analysis of sexual difference that stripped women
of agency and cast them as little more than men's victims. They wanted
to picture women instead as survivors and creators," Stimpson said.
As representative of these two early strands in women's
studies, Stimpson cited a story she found on the Internet about the different
ways students in an English class punctuated the sentence: Woman without
her man is nothing.
The men's version was: Woman, without her man, is
The women punctuated it: Woman! Without her,
man is nothing.
In addition to the study of the differences between
women and men, the "third strand" in second-wave women's studies
"so crucially and so significantly," said Stimpson, was the
study of differences among women. This has resulted in "a
set of conversations in the women's studies classroom that has been an
historic experiment in designing conditions that will encourage interactions
among different peoples and groups," Stimpson said, "and so
the feminist pedagogy has given us a classroom that is a model for education
in a multicultural world."
When wave-2.5 came crashing in during the mid-1980s,
Stimpson said, it presented "three churning challenges to the very
premises" of second-wave women's studies: Queer theory, gender studies,
and the rise of postmodernism.
By offering sexual orientation as an alternative standpoint
from which to look at the world, queer theory threatened to "pull
queer women away from women's studies." Gender studies argued that
the real subject of women's studies was not women -- a key tenet of the
second wave -- but rather gender, "a system that constructed and
linked the meaning of women and men." Such studies "began to
supplement and in some cases supplant women's studies," said Stimpson,
noting that in the mid-1980s "some of the most brilliant and influential
historians of women" published important books that used gender
in their titles.
Stimpson called postmodernism perhaps "the most
controversial" contribution of wave 2.5. Philosophically, it questioned
assumptions about language as a mirror of reality and, "indeed, argued
that discourse shapes and sculpts these realities," Stimpson said.
"Psychologically, postmodern theories provided a picture of the self
that was fragmented, a turbulent river fed by multiple streams: I am woman,
hear my self-divisions roar."
Though U.S. women had made many education gains -- since
1986 they have earned the majority of bachelor's and master's degrees
-- Stimpson said, "there is much left to do, and to add to the pain,
[a] belligerent backlash against women is whipping through higher education."
Calling the reaction against women's studies, "but
one element of larger efforts to contain the modern struggle for educational
and social equity," Stimpson charged that since the 1980s some social
conservatives and neoconservatives have organized highly visible campaigns
that have lambasted women's studies and have announced that academic feminism
"betrays the free market, betrays the free world, betrays free and
objective inquiry, betrays the family, and betrays heterosexuality without
"So the third wave now moves in these crosscurrents:
a struggle between conflicting forces of the need for education, of advancements
for justice and equity in education, and the backlash," said Stimpson.
Which is where Ally McBeal reenters the story, she added, referring to
Time magazine's "notorious" cover story from last summer
titled, "Is Feminism Dead?" which pictured the television character
in a line with real-life feminist icons Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan,
and Gloria Steinem ("Looking a bit like Betty Friedan," Stimpson
"Not only were women of color erased from this
brief visual history of feminism and post-feminism," Stimpson noted.
"A media fiction was granted the same place as real women, and as
if to prove postmodern theory, representations of history and media inventions
were granted the same status."
Stimpson said she found "plausible" one women's
studies scholar's theory that Ally McBeal is popular because she reflects
a contemporary ambivalence about gender roles, because she reflects the
desire to have it all, and because of her forthright admission that sometimes
she fails. "But my own experience of third-wavers in women's studies
convinces me that Ally is not all there is," she added.
The third wave also represents a generational shift,
Stimpson noted, with a significant number of students pursuing women's
studies "because their mothers told them to." For the most part,
Stimpson said, her third wavers are believers in diversity, expect to
earn their own living, have "complicated attitudes about our sex-saturated
culture," are aware of the "new technologies of birth,"
and expect to eventually have a family.
"And what do they want for women's studies?"
she continued. "I believe they want large, cohering narratives that
respect difference and provide an accessible language. They want to learn
how the postmodern global economy works and what their place might be
in it. They know about marginality, but they find very little glamor in
it, and the desire for an economic narrative crosses class, gender, and
"And they want roses as well as bread and keyboards;
they want a sense of values," Stimpson said, expressing the hope
that "second-wavers and third-wavers together can reaffirm the narrative
of modernity itself," which, despite its limitations, "should
be ours, because it encourages us to believe in pluralism over monism,
secularism over fundamentalism, democracy over totalitarianism, inclusiveness
and equality over hierarchies, and acceptance of individual differences
over conformity. How can we cast this narrative aside?"
Professing "unwavering faith in our wild and patient
dream," Stimpson concluded, "I will retain my belief that women's
studies is our pioneer in helping to redesign democracy in the mind. It
is not a monster mother breeding monstrous children, but the work of women
and men who have toiled to do that old-fashioned thing -- to make the
world different and better."
January/February Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 1/5/99